Criquette Head-Maarek rises from her office chair and throws her arms apart in a gesture of welcome. It is only days since Treve lost her unbeaten record but any sense of disappointment is hard to discern. This fourth-generation trainer has seen too much to be downcast in defeat.
“That’s what happens in racing,” she reflects. “Things went wrong but at least it will put everyone back on the ground. Some people were already on the moon, and wanting to go higher.”
It’s tempting to assume Head-Maarek is putting on a brave face. That pristine record has gone and with it the prospect of emulating Frankel by retiring unbeaten. Yet the trainer smiles when reliving the race in which Treve encountered a horse whose record on testing ground at Longchamp is unimpeachable.
Since he came of age four years ago, Cirrus Des Aigles has encountered such conditions seven times at Longchamp. His sole defeat dates to 2012, when he yielded by a short neck in the Group 2 Prix de Conseil de Paris even though he was trapped against the rail for much of the straight.
They found a tumour on my brain. I had to have a big operation but I told no-one about it
“That horse [Cirrus Des Aigles] is a champion,” Head-Maarek says. “He wasn’t far from Frankel at Ascot and you don’t beat him at Longchamp in those conditions. Many have tried.”
An interesting footnote to the Prix Ganay is that the first three home were all trained by women. It is generally assumed that Corine Barande-Barbe, who trains Cirrus Des Aigles, was inspired by Head-Maarek’s trail-blazing career as France’s first woman trainer. In fact, it is Myriam Bollack-Badel, trainer of the third horse home, Norse King, who holds that distinction.
“Myriam started a couple of years before me,” Head-Maarek, 66, reflects. “At that time the authorities [the Societe d’Encouragement] didn’t want us to do it. When I applied they said I’d just be the name on the licence and that my father would be training the horses. They thought it was some kind of funny trick!”
That was in 1978, when Alec Head ran one of Europe’s most potent stables. He handled 200 regally-bred horses, many of them owned by Jacques Wertheimer, whom Head had advised on bloodstock matters for more than two decades.
By then Head had won just about any race worth winning on either side of la Manche, including the 1956 Derby with Wertheimer’s Lavandin. As a jockey he’d also won the 1946 Champion Hurdle aboard Vatelys, trained by his father Willie, the year before he would finish runner-up in the same race on Le Paillon.
Handsome compensation for that near-miss was taken seven months later, when Willie saddled Le Paillon to win the 1957 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. By then Alec had retired from the saddle and turned to training. He was just 23, and would become champion trainer in France six times.
Nevertheless, Alec Head’s most notable contribution to the Turf is his overall horsemanship. In Riverman and Lyphard, he bought two yearlings that would excel as stallions; he was also underbidder on Arazi, Blushing Groom and Vaguely Noble. And the list of champions he bred at his Haras du Quesnay – or “le Quesnay”, as it is known – is the equal of any nursery in Europe.
Although Head-Maarek always wanted to train, “Papa” encouraged her to extend her education first. She spent four years at school in Britain, firstly in Guildford – “it was near Epsom, where an aunt of mine lived and there was racing, so I was very happy” – and then in an Eastbourne finishing school.
From there she spent three years in Spain, where she met her first husband, Rene Romanet, before returning to France in 1974. “Papa said I had to work alongside him before I could start training,” she recalls. “At the time I was also a bloodstock agent, buying and selling horses.”
What she doesn’t amplify is her success in that role. In 1977 Head-Maarek bought a filly by Lyphard that she trained on taking out her licence the following year. Owned by her mother, Ghislaine, Three Troikas carried all before her in 1979 and closed her campaign by winning the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe with brother Freddy in the saddle.
It was a dream start for Head-Maarek, who had saddled another filly, Sigy, to win the Group 1 Prix de l’Abbaye in her debut season. And the trainer has continued apace: she has won each of the French Classics at least once.
Overall, her record with fillies surpasses those of her colts. She has trained seven winners of the Poule d’Essai des Pouliches against one in the Poulains, and three Prix de Diane winners against one in the Prix du Jockey-Club. Moreover, her four Classic triumphs in Britain have all been gained in the 1,000 Guineas.
For all that, there has been hardship along the way. The family dynasty has undoubtedly been a help, but it has brought some complications. Head-Maarek started training for Khalid Abdullah in the early 1980s when the Saudi prince agreed to buy all the yearling colts bred by her father in partnership with the late Roland de Chambure, under their Societe Aland banner.
I’m looking forward to running Treve at Royal Ascot, when I hope we’ll have a good pace and fast ground
Then, in 1986, along came Bering, a magnificent colt who yielded only once in his three-year-old season – when runner-up to Abdullah’s Dancing Brave in the 1986 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. But the preamble was fraught. As Bering carried all before him, Abdullah wondered why the colt didn’t pass into his ownership as a young horse.
That was because Bering was bred by Alec Head on his own, rather than by his involvement in Aland. In time Abdullah came to recognise that, although any parting of the ways would have deprived Head-Maarek of several career highlights.
“It’s very easy for misunderstandings to come up,” she reflects, “but we survived that. The prince has been so good to me. He is so easy to work with and we have had some fantastic success together.”
However, one key alliance that ran aground was her link with the Wertheimer family, whose horses she inherited when her father retired in 1983. Despite numerous owners’ and breeders’ titles, the two brothers pulled out of Head-Maarek’s stable in 2006 when the latter’s relationship with their retained jockey, Olivier Peslier, passed the point of no return.
It grieves her still to reflect on it, eight years later, although the tension between them was such that it doesn’t take long to resurface. “Everything was so difficult,” she recalls. “I remember I had a good Wertheimer filly running in a Group 1 race in August and I knew Peslier wouldn’t ride it how I wanted. I said to [the brothers] before the race, ‘If he doesn’t ride to instructions, I quit.’ So I went to see them the next morning to say my goodbyes.
“I was so upset,” she continues. “All those years when we did so well together and then it’s finished. But we are still very good friends and I am delighted that my brother [Freddy] and son-in-law [Carlos Laffon-Parias, who married Criquette’s daughter Patricia] are training for them.”
It was a traumatic year all round for Head-Maarek, who was simultaneously fighting cancer. “I had chemotherapy and radiotherapy for three months,” she says. “I was away in hospital for one week while they operated, but otherwise I worked every morning. Maybe they [the Wertheimers] wanted to change because they weren’t comfortable with it.”
Come the summer and Head-Maarek returned to health, although it would be two further years before doctors were prepared to sign her off. Yet when you ask whether the scare changed her life, she returns a surprise.
“No, because I had worse than that in 1990,” she says. “They found a tumour on my brain. I had to have a big operation, but I told no-one about it, not even my father, until it was over. It happened in winter, so there was no problem with [training] the horses, and I came back fine.”
The onset of cancer 16 years later reaffirmed that she should enjoy every day. “There are too many problems when you have two scares like that,” she says. “You are in the doctor’s room and he tells you he is going to operate but he doesn’t really know what the future holds for you. It is almost like you have already gone.
“You don’t see things the same way after, that’s for sure. You re-focus on the important things and I started realising how important life was in 1990. It can suddenly be taken from you, but I’ve had a fantastic life. I still love what I am doing and have no intention of quitting.”
There is no chance of that while Treve is here. As she ushers you into her box you become aware of the filly’s physical range; she has certainly strengthened up for her winter’s rest.
But there’s more than just Treve to fill Head-Maarek’s eye. There’s Trophee, her three-year-old half-sister who needs time; and Torrid, her two-year-old half-sister by Fuisse who should be ready to debut at Deauville in August. Back at le Quesnay, Treve’s full-sister was foaled in April and is the best physical product yet from her dam, 14-year-old Trevise.
“It’s a God-given thing to have Treve,” Head-Maarek says. “Good horses make good trainers: when you come across one like her, she takes you right to the top. I’m looking forward to running her at Royal Ascot, when I hope we’ll have a good pace and fast ground.”
Treve will then defend her Arc crown in October, after which plans remain fluid. A second victory might well see her return to training next year. “Why not?” her trainer asks. “I will see what Sheikh Joaan wants to do, but when fillies are good at four, they are good at five. And no horse has won three Arcs!”
Another door opened for Head-Maarek when Sheikh Joaan bought Treve from her father last summer. The Qatari sent a few yearlings round to 32 Avenue du General Leclerc last autumn, among them a Sea The Stars half-brother to Treve’s Derby-winning sire Motivator.
That address is where Head-Maarek trains from an idyllic, 60-box stable that was bought from the Wertheimer family. On one side of it, at No 34, sits her parents’ Chantilly house, while on the other, at No 30, is where Laffon-Parias trains from. Freddy, meanwhile, trains a little further down the road at No 4.
One thing is plain. The family dynasty will run to several chapters yet.
Haras du Quesnay and the future
On its purchase in 1958, it took Alec Head two years before he could run horses on the paddocks at Haras du Quesnay, four miles from Deauville. The 740-acre property had stood derelict since the end of World War II, when the German regional commanding officer made it his headquarters.
Evidence of the German tenure remains by way of three huge concrete bunkers sited too close to the 16th century chateau to be blown up. When Alec’s father, Willie, saw the place for the first time he thought renovating it would bring the family to its financial knees. But le Quesnay aroused different sentiments in Alec’s daughter, Criquette.
“All the stable doors were gone and there were coils of barbed wire in the boxes,” she says. “The frames of the buildings were there but everything else had to be rebuilt.”
The property now stands as a monument to Alec Head, who bred countless champions there. Bering, his dam and his granddam were all bred on a farm that has raised three Prix du Jockey-Club winners and two Arc winners in addition to a plethora of Classic-winning fillies in Harbour, Ma Biche, Matiara, Ravinella, Riverqueen, Silvermine and now Treve.
In 2009, Head-Maarek and her brother Freddy took over running the farm in which their two sisters, Patricia and Martine, are also partners.
“My father asked us whether we wanted to do it, otherwise he would sell it,” she reflects. “We said no, absolutely not. Papa loves that place. It is his lifetime’s work and we are the guardians of it.”
Although Treve initially carried Alec’s silks, the decision to sell was made jointly by Criquette and Freddy as proprietors of le Quesnay. Sheikh Joaan also wanted to buy Treve’s dam, Trevise, but she was not for sale.
“He was very keen but I explained that our job is to create horses,” Head-Maarek says. “We cannot do that if we sell our best mares. And he has Treve, who he will breed from one day.”
The family has trimmed the broodmare band to concentrate on quality. There are 50 mares owned outright or in family partnerships, together with 70 boarders, some for new clients. “As beautiful as it is, it is very expensive to run,” she explains. “We had to reopen the stud to clients; we didn’t have the money to continue what Papa was doing there.”
With the new regime in place it will be some time before le Quesnay passes to the next generation of Heads – if at all. “It is difficult to run a stud when there are many people in a family,” she says. “I have one daughter but Freddy has seven children.
“At le Quesnay, Freddy and I were brought up with horses the same way. We see the same way forward and never argue, so it works well. Papa was concerned when the two of us said we would run the farm, but he is happy now. He can see we are doing things properly.”